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Google's Street View Snooping Problems Aren't Going Away


The custom-made panoramic camera which made Google's Street View possible

Photograph by Fred Dufour/AFP via Getty Images

The custom-made panoramic camera which made Google's Street View possible

Google (GOOG) is going to have to keep talking about how the cars it used to build its mapping service drove around sucking in personal information from unencrypted Wi-Fi networks. The Supreme Court refused to hear the company’s appeal that such activity wasn’t a violation of the federal Wiretap Act, which means that a potential class-action suit can proceed.

Even among Silicon Valley’s litany of privacy intrusions, this flavor of snooping stood out. Google’s vehicles collected data being transmitted over wireless networks as they mapped streets for Street View. If a network wasn’t secured, the company could have picked up the content of any communications traveling through it. Google apologized for doing this, said the information wasn’t used to create any products or services, and has stopped the practice. It said in a emailed statement that it was disappointed the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Google clearly would like the whole thing to go away. When the Federal Communications Commission investigated the project, it complained that Google obstructed its work, even though it said the company hadn’t broken any laws. The attorneys general of 38 states resolved their issue with Google, reaching a deal last year through which the company would pay the nominal sum of $7 million—about 0.01 percent of its 2013 revenue—and teach its employees that this kind of thing wouldn’t fly in the future.

None of this precludes private lawsuits. Benjamin Joffe originally filed suit against Google in 2010, claiming that the company collected personal passwords, credit card numbers, and e-mails. Google sued to block it, and the case has been stalled ever since as it has worked its way through the courts. By deciding against hearing the case, the Supreme Court lets stand the decision of a lower court rejecting Google’s argument that unencrypted information floating around on wireless networks was fair game.

Elizabeth Cabraser, an attorney for Joffe, says they will continue discovery, which could be an awkward endeavor for Google. Cabraser says she’ll seek more information about what Google did and what it intended to do with the information. The FCC said in its report that the engineer in charge of the project had laid out what he planned on doing before launching the Wi-Fi snooping.

The Supreme Court’s action, however, is no guarantee that Google has much beyond embarrassment to fear from Joffe’s case. The suit has yet to succeed in being certified as a class action. “The case went up to the Supreme Court at an early stage,” says Cabraser.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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